Jade: HJ Sandman survivor

The life and times of one of the coolest survivors of the van era

Photographers: Nathan Jacobs

Once upon a time it was vans like Jade that were the elite superstars. People lathered trick paint, custom trim and endless chrome, brass and even goldplating around the place in an all-out effort to make their van number one.

First published in the June 2015 issue of Street Machine

But once the vanning scene took a nosedive, so did the vans. Well-specced drivelines, bucket interiors and all the blingy bits made them perfect donor cars for the burgeoning street machine movement. And why wouldn’t you? It was a smart move to recycle someone else’s hard work and cubic dollars and send the leftovers to the wreckers.

Fortunately, not every classic show van’s story ended with crispy mattresses and vandalised murals. Here’s one van that had the fairytale ending instead.

It was 1980 and a young Gary Pierce laid down $7K for an HJ Sandman. He was keen to transform the van into something worthy and within a few years had moved in the right direction. A WB Statesman front and rear bumper were purchased brand new, along with commercial-variant tail-lamps to complete the WB upgrade. A roof spoiler, sunroof and custom bonnet scoop rounded out the exterior changes, before the van was lavished in fresh jade-green Acran.

Paul Barker applied some nice boobie murals before Gary bolted up a set of custom 15x10in wheels made by his father using Globe centres and Porsche rims.

A 350 Chev found its way into the smoothed and detailed engine bay, packing fuelie heads and a Crane cam and topped with twin 600s on a tunnel ram. A shift-kitted Turbo 400 was a sensible upgrade, while a Jag rear was fitted using a McDonald Bros chassis kit and chromed to within an inch of its life in true 80s fashion.

A mix of green and white crushed velvet was diamond-tufted to create a minty-fresh interior – I’m serious, it looked sweet – with green perspex as a highlight.

It was a neat-looking van with a solid following, and won Gary a swag of trophies, but he still needed more. This is where shit usually goes astray – we all know of cars stripped for rebuilds that just never go back together – but Jade soon burst back onto the scene better than ever.

A 6/71 supercharger howling through an awesome perspex bonnet was the most obvious change, while a complete interior overhaul included a WB Statesman dash and brown re-trim to replace the original green.

The rear interior was completely stripped and redesigned using brass-plated tubing along with tan and brown velour.

The driveline detailing switched from red to green, with the complete exhaust system redesigned and coated in brass. Fresh murals adorned the exterior, while any of the previous silver detailing was replaced with higher-end gold.

A first glance at the engine bay still requires a double-take even 30 years on – try not to get drool on the Mr Roadster scoop. You’d swear the chassis rails were chromed, but they are in fact the tightest-fitting, factory-contoured, smoothest chrome chassis-rail covers you’ll ever see. It’s said these metal masterpieces took a month per side to make, and I can definitely believe it.

Gary drove the revamped Jade to the Wodonga Van Nationals in ’85 and took out the Top Van award, before fading away from the public eye.

The small number of survivor vans we enjoy today all have one thing in common: the original owners held onto them for years after the show glory faded, and when the vans did eventually change hands, it was to people who appreciated their history and had a natural leaning towards the caretaker role.

Melbourne’s James Ellis is one such enthusiast, whose love of vanning is expressed through his own individual builds and maintaining icons from the past.

“I worked with Gary in the mid-80s,” James says. “I always loved the van and have remained friends with Gary in the years since. Jade made an appearance at the 1996 Van Nationals, but pretty much sat in storage the rest of the time. A mate of mine was keen to buy it so I helped broker a deal in 2005. He gave it a few tweaks but was keen to move it on for another project, so I bought it in late 2012.”

Sadly, the clear perspex bonnet was long gone, having been broken years earlier, but the rest of the van had survived virtually unscathed.

With James busy rebuilding the last surviving Easy Roller Bedford, Jade spent the next two years in his shed, but he finally embarked on a two-month thrash to get her ready for this year’s Melbourne Hot Rod Show. “The engine was running but only just, and it needed a massive detail front to rear – the chrome was so filthy it looked like it had been painted silver!”

Glenlyon Motors in East Brunswick sorted out Jade’s mechanical woes, including an 11th-hour crankshaft keyway repair, while James got stuck into the mammoth task of returning Jade to her show-stopping best.

“The response at the Melbourne show was mind-blowing,” he says. “People loved seeing the van and it brought back a lot of memories for the old school, that’s for sure.”

It received a similar warm welcome at the Bathurst Van Nationals and netted James a 5th Top Van placing, proving Jade still has what it takes to be competitive 30 years on.

“I have no real plans for Jade other than to try and replace the missing perspex bonnet and just maintain it,” James says. “I still have a couple of other vans on the go and would like to build a hot rod or a Trans Am too, so yeah, it’s less drama to keep it as is.” Sounds perfect to me.

James has since moved Jade on to new custodians.